Élite Panic: A Lesson From Katrina, A Lesson for Today

Rebecca Solnit at The Nation may have unwittingly stumbled upon something in her fifth anniversary article on Katrina:

Those in power, on the other hand, often run amok. They did in San Francisco in 1906, when an obsessive fear that private property would be misappropriated led to the mayor’s shoot-to-kill proclamation; a massive military and national guard on the streets; and the death of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians. Much like New Orleans ninety-nine years later, those who claimed to be protecting society were themselves the ones who were terrorizing and shooting. Earlier this year, Haitians were subjected to a similar rampage of what the disaster sociologists Lee Clarke and Caron Chess call “elite panic.” (emphasis mine) For example, 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot to death in late January in Port-au-Prince for taking some small paintings from a shop in ruins, one of many casualties of the institutional obsession with protecting property instead of rescuing the trapped, the suffering and the needy.

Surviving the new era, in which climate change is already causing more, and more intense, disasters, means being prepared—with the truth. The truth is that in a disaster, ordinary people behave well overall; your chances of surviving a major disaster depend in part on the health and strength of your society going into it. Even so, countless individuals under corrupt governments, in New Orleans, in Mexico City, in Port-au-Prince, often rise to the occasion with deeply altruistic, creative and brave responses. These are the norm. The savagery of elite panic is the exception, but one that costs lives.

Let me add something Ms. Solnit overlooks: black people, tragic as their situations were, weren’t the only victims of élite panic in the wake of Katrina.

Fast forward to today: we have a disaster called the economy.  Haven’t we been seeing élite panic run amok?  Isn’t that was Henry Paulson experiencing when he initiated the bailout and everyone went along with him?  Isn’t that what’s driven the stimulus?  Isn’t that what’s driving the endless bawling and demonising going on now that things aren’t working according to our élites’ desires?  As Ms. Solnit notes, “…in a disaster, ordinary people behave well overall.”  Were that not the case, we should be seeing much worse than we are with the unemployment and foreclosure levels we have.

The question now remains: when this disaster is done, will there be an Eric Holder, crusading to indict those élites who panicked and committed atrocious things?  Not if our élites can help it!

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